Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Torture by trombone, and flute, and clarinet and recorder

‘Oh God, it’s the school concert on Wednesday,’ said Annie glumly, swirling pink fizz round her glass.
‘Damn,’ said Sam. ‘I’d clean forgotten. Not sure I can get away with missing two years running.’
‘We went last year – AND the year before. I was thinking that we could pull a sickie this year with relative impunity,’ said Sue, sucking on an olive.
‘Hmm. They look out for that,’ said Joyce, an old hand with her fourth child going through the system. ‘If you want to be really safe, call her in sick at the beginning of the week.’

It puzzles me, this. I’ve yet to find a parent who actually enjoys the school summer concert. Every year we moan and bitch about it. Every year we try to wriggle out of it. Are we really all such terrible mothers?
What makes it worse is that it’s supposed to be ‘fun’. The idea is that everyone comes along and camps out in the marquee and at half-time (sorry, still thinking sport, I mean, in the interval) we lay out our picnic rugs, open up our hampers and clink champagne glasses and generally have a super jolly sociable time.

In theory it’s lovely. In practice it’s hell. Firstly school finishes at 4.30pm and the concert doesn’t start until 7pm. So you’re left batting round town with a bored hungry child and nowhere to go. The only places open are the Wetherspoons (full of old soaks) and the McDonalds (full of fat slobs) – OK, massive over-generalisation but you know what I mean. Secondly the darn thing goes on until about 9.45pm so by the time we get home James isn’t in bed until 10.30pm and is completely knackered, cranky and foul the following day.
Thirdly, it’s interminable and being brutally honest, unless your child is actually playing, turgid to the extreme. Actually, come to think of it, it’s even worse if your child IS playing. I know, I know, I should be more charitable and I should be overcome with gooeyness at small children playing big instruments but by God what’s worse than 7 year olds on violins or the combined onslaught of twelve trombones? Or a thirty-piece recorder ensemble (surely there must be a better collective noun for recorders – a squeal? A screech?).

Thank heavens for Annie who stoically volunteered to collect James and keep him amused until the concert and to save us a seat behind a pillar.
This year I had fully intended to play the game, be a good sport, shave my legs and wear a linen skirt or something. I also resolved to pull together a posh picnic and sling in a bottle of something chilled (in the realisation that most sensible parents get through it by getting totally sloshed). Of course it didn’t happen. Time slurped past and it was too late to defuzz and pluck so on went the black jeans. Clean forgot the picnic so we had a frantic trolleydash around M&S for food. Arrived hot, sweaty and with a grubby carrier bag instead of a nice wicker picnic hamper or a trendy tiffin stack.
Annie was her usual calm collected self (always is, despite having a furiously demanding job), sitting serenely with a batch of saved seats, firing off emails on her blackberry and keeping four boys under control at the same time. Yup, two sneaky mothers had somehow managed to skive off altogether and parked theirs with her (God, I envied their style). She even had a pukka picnic, proper plates and wotnot, cream to go with the strawberries (which were decanted into bowls). We meanwhile hoiked bits of salami straight from the pack.

What can I say? For the most part we simply endured but there were a few moments of pure gold. The pre-prep brass group was fabulous – five and six year olds squeezing farts and burps out of shiny trumpets, tubas and trombones. The clarinets were even better. Just the two boys (friends of James) on one end of a phalanx of girls with one boy visibly prodding the other as he kept hitting bum notes. As the piece progressed the notes squeaked more, the prodding got harder and in the end the protagonist collapsed in hysterics. They had another go but it was a lost cause and after a few bars and a lot of hysterical squeaks they gave up, the girls giving withering looks to the boys who merrily waved and raised their instruments in triumph as the audience whooped and clapped (presumably out of sheer relief for a break in the monotony).

Then it was time for the staff song. They’d gone for Abba’s Money Money Money which came out a little dirgy (and wildly off-key on the part of the men).
Annie raised an eyebrow. ‘Bit ironic really, given the current climate,’ she hissed. Rumour has it that quite a few parents are struggling to meet the fees in the recession (and boy do I sympathise with that). There were lots of resigned nods at the lines: ‘I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay’ and a few glum faces at ‘it’s a rich man’s world.’

We hurtled out at the end, relief etched deep.
‘Back again on Friday for Speech Day,’ said Annie as we parted company in the car park.
‘Same deal? Sit together and share the agony?’
I nodded gratefully.

PS - the picture is where I'd rather have been sitting. Ie outside my house with a glass of chilled pinot.
PPS - just HUGE thanks for the incredible support re the Liz Jones blog. It really seemed to touch a nerve but sadly doubt it will make any difference to her stance.


Milla said...

hey, I;ve got a tiffin stack and now I know what it is called. However, it's far too shiny and nice ever to be used so will remain in a dark cupboard looking beautiful while I, too, battle with, yes, slimy packs of salami instead - far wiser, actually, and less washing up, which is surely what it's all about.
We have such an event, but on a state school shoestring, it's an hour, with no grub whether you bring it or not (I presume for once I've got health and safety to THANK) and really rather sweet. I always sob at the transience, the earnestness ... and then scuttle home.

Michelloui said...

It's the same everywhere!! I was laughing as I read this because over in Essex the same moaning and bitching has been going on as well. One mum broke the rules and said to my friend, 'can you pick up my daughter tonight and return her for the concert? I'm lucky that I have a dinner party with my boss I have to go to.' Asking the favour if the lift wasn't the problem, it was the confession that she was LUCKY. Then all the mum's tut tutted as if they weren't envious. Ha!

Exmoorjane said...

Milla: yeah, well, secretly of course I crave a tiffin stack! But you see, yours is the right attitude surely - and I've got a vital maternal part missing.
Trust me, I yearn for the days of state school shoestring sometimes (actually quite a lot, particularly around fee paying day).

Michelloui: Glad it's not just me... Sometimes it just feels like it's something the school feels it OUGHT to do. But then again, some children seem to love it so then I feel guilty about being all sourpuss.

rachel said...

Now that took me back - a very long time too, but the memories are there, clear, sharp and painful. School plays were just as bad. Thankfully, soft play was invented too late for the Lovely Son to have inflicted that as a toddler on his long-suffering mother, but we made up for it later in spades.....

Annette Piper said...

Oh dear. I've got the first "school talent concert" in a fortnight. Sounds like I will need much fortification to get through it *sigh*. Thanks for the heads up - at least I'll be prepared!!!

BTW, your patio looks lovely!

Chris Stovell said...

Ooh, shudder! So glad those days have gone and I live too far away from clarinet playing niece to be roped into hers!

Exmoorjane said...

Rachel: A bit like PTSD then! How many more years of this have I got? Though, as one mother said, it does get better as they get older.

Annette: Alcohol. Lots of it. Only way. Or surreptitious iPod.

Chris: lucky, lucky. Who could have guessed how truly horrible a clarinet can sound?

Irene said...

An inappropriate amount of time and money seems to be wasted on having the right sort of clothes and picnic materials to attend the school concert. I think you unwittingly did it right by putting yourself and the picnic together at the last moment. What about homemade salami sandwiches and potato salad and a package of crisps? Surely that will do as well and be just as tasty. And why a linen skirt in the great outdoors? Jeans seem ever so more practical. Don't let yourself be made crazy and always do it your way. I've lived your life and am an escapee from it.

S said...

Blimey...that brought it all back. Hanging around town, last minute picnics etc.. Baroque music on a recorder is my worst lasting memory of junior school concerts. I woke myself up with a snort, wiped away the dribble (red faced), and dashed for the door.

Exmoorjane said...

Green Stone Woman: Yes, you're totally right of course. Our pick 'n' mix salami etc plus olives, prawns, cherries and weird but nice little pasty things did the trick. Always happiest in jeans!

Exmoorjane said...

Salle: oops, you snuck in while i was typing. Oh god, the snort, the dribble - you're so right, could have been much MUCH worse.

Pondside said...

That took me back, Jane. Our school concerts were never in good weather - always in winter so that the squeeks and groans were played out in a fug of wet wool and dripping rubber boots. One of the circles of hell, surely, and since my children were 7 years apart, I did it for 20 years.

Rob-bear said...

There are three kinds of tasks in the world: need to do, nice to do, nuts to do. This one sounds nuttier than a Christmas cake! My condolences to everyone involved, throughout the nation, it appears.

Our kids didn't play instruments in school. No time or that sort of time-wasting nonsense in our school curriculum (or so we're told). Art -- no. Singing -- no. I swear that we're raising cultural Philistines! (Both kids did take music, privately, later on; our son and his son are currently learning the violin together.)

Journalists pesky questions (from the back row). Exactly whose need is being met by putting on these appalling performances? Is someone suffering from something akin to politically correct "niceness? Is somebody stuck in a mental rut? (Can somebody help me here?)

Meanwhile, can I come for a glass of what you're serving on your beautiful patio? I promise to be a well-behaved Bear!

Anonymous said...

I think school concerts are a stalwart from an older era in what is now much changed times. Up to probably the 70s, parents didn't view these activities the way we do now. They attended these shows and liked them. But then again, look at what made people happy in those days - On The Buses and Mrs Thursday, so the entertainment bar had already been set low!
But our way of living and our average level of sophistication has risen so much in 30 years that we look at these activities as tedious. I attended many of these shows and not because I wanted to (I didn't) but because I didn't want to disappoint my daughter and I suspect that is the driving force behind many of us who attend these shows and secretly, deep down, we are glad we did go.
But hark at me, not only do I sound like an Islington Intellectual, but I'm beginning to wind-bag on like a Mail columnist. Sorry about that.

ArtSparker said...

I hear on the leg-shaving - sometimes (most of the time) it's a bridge too far. I do vote, so I am contributing society in that way. Your description makes me think of the band playing as the Titanic went down .

blackbird said...

I bought my son a trumpet from a friend but luckily he was drawn to the saxophone. More mellow.

I, actually, have spent the last 7 or 8 years planning just this kind of event, as a volunteer, for my son's schools. Being a bit of a control freak, if given the chance- I would reorganize the event. Much shorter, more convenient time with everything moving along at a fast clip.

My finale, before retiring back into my normal life, was the promotion ceremony before the kids went off to high school. I gave each and every speaker 5 minutes max and the whole event finished in record time. Much relieved, everyone went outside, chatted with each other and celebrated the successes of their children.

Too often the events are planned to meet the needs of some of the parents. If you turn the focus back onto the children and keep the hour short- I think it's better for everyone. Sorry to sound a little preachy.

Rob-bear said...

Good points, blackbird. No so much preachy as cutting to the chase.

Victoria Summerley said...

If children are going to learn instruments, you have to give them a chance to perform, no matter how excruciating it might be for the audience. Otherwise, what's the point?
What puzzles me is why people want their children to have music lessons when they take so little interest in the results. It's not compulsory, you know, not even for the middle classes.
Many parents insist their kid learns in a class of six or eight instead of one-to-one (because it's so much cheaper) and wonder why they progress so slowly.
Children learn violin or flute at school because they're portable and cheap, not because they're easy or rewarding. Learning any instrument that has to be tuned or blown is bloody difficult.
If you want to make life easy for your child (and yourself), get them some sort of keyboard. Then they can wear headphones when they practise! If they show any aptitude, they can go on and learn another instrument, by which time they will be able to read music, which makes everything much, much easier.
And how about choosing from a whole range of musical instruments - cor anglais, oboe, viola, bassoon, French horn - which have become virtually endangered species because state schools only teach bloody guitar?
Oops, sorry, getting a bit pompous here. You can tell I'm a music graduate, can't you? Just ignore me.

Victoria Summerley said...

PS: Sorry, I was so busy being pompous, I forgot to say how funny your post was, Jane.


Firstly, can I just say, your terrace looks fab. Can completely understand your preference to stay at home and sip something straight from the fridge and manage to arrange for the salami to rest on a plate for five minutes before completing the journey from pack to mouth. Secondly, can I ask what on earth the teachers were thinking of treating parents to an off-key rendition of Money, Money, Money. They deserve to be pelted with copious quantities of salami straight from the packet for something like that, I mean, of all the billions of songs they could have chosen that is the very one they should not have picked. Except perhaps if the head camped it up as Eartha Kitt and warbled 'Millionaire'. Actually, that sounds as though it might have been more entertaining.
(And thirdly, can I just add that I kind of KNEW Milla would have a tiffin stack. Now I want one, dammit! I hadn't even heard of them except in a sort of theoretical way before, and now I'm tormented by a gaping lack.)

I bet the BlackBerry woman was secretly envying you for being so effortlessly laid back about the whole thing.

denise said...

What in the world is a "tiffin stack"? It sounds like the very latest in coolness, whatever it is. I'll google it later!
Jane, your writing makes me laugh out loud ~ thank you so much!! My kids are 23, 20, and 14 and your story brought back so many memories. I didn't mind concerts too, but didn't particularly care for the school parties that the kids had in preschool and elementary school, even tho I was usually one of the planning moms til the 3rd one went into 1st grade and I went back to work. I like concerts and plays cuz I can SIT and don't have to talk to people!! ha ha. Plus my 14 yr. old daughter is in theater arts and she cracks me up on stage, so it's fun to watch her.
Do you really get to drink while at a school function or did I read that wrong? Boy, that could've made a WORLD of difference on so many levels for me!! Thanks again, Jane, for your wonderful writing and thanks, also, to those who comment, for they're very entertaining as well!

Exmoorjane said...

Pondside: circle of hell? Love it. 20 years is over and beyond!

Rob-Bear: Ah it's just me - sure some parents must enjoy it and some of the children enjoy playing. I'm just being hugely grumpy.

Dave: You're right, you're right, I know....I hate myself for hating it. Not remotely Mail - maybe a little Guardian, but it's OK!

Art Sparker: have finally done the deed - legs are defurred.

Blackbird: oh please come and organise this for next year! That jsut sounds so very sensible. And I'm with R-B, not remotely preachy.

Victoria: I hang my head in shame, I really do and quite agree with what you're saying. The school does short(er) teatime concerts for the parents of children learning instruments which are great - totally approve of those. But a lot of us didn't even have children playing and the whole caboosh is compulsory. I couldn't agree more re instruments (love the oboe, cor anglais) and to be fair there is quite a wide variety taught at school. James, I fear to say, plays guitar (mainly because I love it and it's a kind instrument for the parents of children learning!). Gawd, knew I'd be getting into longwinded apologies on this one!

LBD: terrace (now THAT was the word I was hunting for) IS pretty lovely - now you could be sitting there, with me, sipping a rhubarb bellini come summer....???? Love the idea of our headmaster as Eartha Kitt. And yup, Milla just had to have the tiffin thingy didn't she? Though expect Kitty has several, one to coordinate with each pair of shoes.
Blackberry woman is lovely and didn't bat an eye - much too nicely mannered.

Jeriden: must just say that we don't drink at ALL school functions! But even the teachers indulge in a glass of something or other at this bash. Maybe they need it too!

Maggie Christie said...

... it's even worse when the waffle in between is in Welsh and you haven't got the foggiest idea what is going on! I try to clap in the right bits. Although there's no posh picnics here. A sandwich or two, perhaps, at sports day.
I love the fact that the teachers sang 'Money Money Money'! Holy cow.

Anonymous said...

Poor choice of staff song for a fee paying school.

Where they taking the mick?


Fennie said...

Poor you. I've been there done that - or it's equivalent - as most of us have, no doubt. I'm not sure that it really gets any better as you get older. There were a number of walk-outs even from this year's operatic society show, which was chosen to be, in a triumph of hope over expectation, Camelot. I think your trombones had been doubling in that orchestra for practice.

Laura McIntyre said...

Great i still have this to look forward to, will start making my excuses now

Norma Murray said...

My god woman. If you think it's bad just imagine what it's like for the teachers.

Unknown said...

Loved this post! Your school performances sound very glam!! What is Speech Day?!

Rob-bear said...

Extraneous footnote:

1. "British Mommy Bloggers."

2. "A place to meet other blogging parents."

The Bear is confused. Shouldn't that be "British Parent Bloggers"?

I know, I know; damn these journalists, anyhow, with their impertinent questions.

claire p said...

I'd be grubby M&S bag lady to! One advantage of a special needs child, no school concerts!!!! I remember being in them, and it was just as bad as watching, worse because I couldn't escape to the ladies if it all got too much.

Reasons said...

Oh I KNOW! Last one I went to I got a text message from the hubs asking if we could go to the pub - he was standing right next to me! x

CAMILLA said...

Hi Jane,

Apolgies, just trying to catch up.

Yep, know what you mean.... gone are those days for me for school concerts. Then much later when son was teenager all I could do was put fingers in my ears for that thumping on drums.

Fab patio by the way Jane.


Bluestocking Mum said...

Fantastic! This made me laugh. Quiet Mousie played the Euphonium for a while. He's now conceded that it's hard to play something when it is bigger than you and you can't carry it! Hmmm.

Of course I played the violin as a child. It doesn't get any worse than that.

Kitty said...

Thank GOd I was on holiday for ours. I have the least musical son, who hates singing, so it's torture all round. This year, though, there was a Mummy-scrap involving the Police, breakdancing and a High School Musical routine. Okaaayyyy...

Iota said...

I wonder what a tiffin stack is.

Here in America they seem to do these things in a much less painful way. Short, relaxed, informal - those are the keywords. (I think 'short' is the important one, personally). I think it is partly because they either do it year by year, or at least they group just a few years together, so you're not listening to offerings from the whole school.

Tim Atkinson said...

I can recommend some decent earplugs.

DD's Diary said...

At our school concert the parents were forced to sing 'you'll never walk alone' at the end. Ghastly. Award for you over chez moi xx

prashant said...

Sometimes it just feels like it's something the school feels it OUGHT to do.

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